5 questions with teacher Aaron Benner
St. Paul educator Aaron Benner spoke on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in February to support Mark Janus on the day justices heard arguments regarding Janus v. AFSCME, a case that could prohibit public sector unions from collecting mandatory “fair share” fees.
Why do you teach?
I have a B.A. in sociology and criminal justice from the University of St. Thomas. After college I worked in a halfway house in St. Paul. On my off days, I would volunteer in elementary schools because I was bored. I fell in love with the students on day one. I eventually went back to school and acquired my teaching license though a program at the University of St. Thomas.
I teach because we need to help our students become better citizens. I didn’t get into teaching because I am a black male, but being black and a male was an advantage in the classroom. I connected with students in ways that some teachers couldn’t. Even though the narrative now is we need more black, male teachers, I would say beyond that we just need good, quality teachers.
Why did you leave the St. Paul school district?
It was a free-for-all in my school regarding violence—and I’m not talking about little things, I am talking about things like heads being smashed against walls. I found out the lack of discipline revolved around race. I believed the St. Paul Public Schools were setting black students up for failure by having different racial behavioral guidelines.
I disagreed with the district’s racial equity policy and was forced out of my job after I spoke at a school board meeting. I was suddenly accused of numerous infractions after having zero infractions throughout my entire teaching career. These frivolous infractions were clearly out of the ordinary and were the result of me speaking at the meeting. I had no idea I would be considered a whistle blower when I voiced concern over the district’s new equity discipline policies.
Why do you support Mark Janus’s case?
I love the fact that there may come a day when teachers and other employees will have a choice if they want to pay union dues. When I was going through my battles with the St. Paul Public Schools, my union—the St. Paul Federation of Teachers—did nothing to support me. They wasted my time and still took my union dues. I would have never paid union dues for 15 years in SPPS if I knew I would not be properly represented. When the time came for the union to support me, my union representative tried to have me plead to an offense I didn’t do so she could “plead the other charges down.” Then, the union president told me she was forced by the school district to write a public statement about me after I made an appearance on national television. The union was working against me and working behind my back. When I needed their support, their silence was deafening. My union supported the racial equity policies implemented by the school district, and I was just a dispensable employee. I predicted the chaos St. Paul schools experienced in the fall of 2015 due to these new racial equity policies.
How would you describe your experience of appearing on the Court steps on behalf of Janus?
It was an experience of a lifetime. I think I was supposed to be there. I had no clue what to expect. Were protesters going to throw things at me? In my heart I knew I had to support Mark Janus because his case speaks to my heart. I told people, I’m not for the elimination of unions. I want a choice. Here’s my story. It was a blessing from God to participate in something so historic, on the steps of the Supreme Court. If Janus wins, unions will have to actually deliver on the promises they tell their members. Unions will have to actually listen to their members, and work for them.
Any advice for teachers?
My advice to new teachers: If teaching is what you love to do, don’t let one bad year, school, or principal derail your dreams. I was fortunate to work with many great teachers in St. Paul Public Schools, and I wish them the best. Unfortunately, their union and district claim to have students’ best interests at heart, but that’s not true.